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‘NK diplomat is living in South’

Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang. (AFP-Yonhap)
Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang. (AFP-Yonhap)
North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait has been living with his family in South Korea for at least a year, a local newspaper reported Monday.

The diplomat, Ryu Hyun-woo, was the North’s acting chief of mission in Kuwait in 2019, when he defected to the South with his family, who the source said had motivated him to defect in hopes of a “better future.”

If true, it is the third time a ranking official from Pyongyang has defected to Seoul since 2012, when leader Kim Jong-un came to power. In 2019, the North’s former acting ambassador to Rome deserted the totalitarian regime. In 2016, Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to London fled to Seoul and became a lawmaker here.

Ryu would be the highest-ranking diplomat to abandon the regime since 1997, when the North’s ambassador to Egypt fled to the US.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said it will not confirm the news reports about Ryu or his whereabouts. The spy agency keeps the defection of high-profile North Korean figures secret to avoid retaliation against their families in the North and a setback in inter-Korean relations.

Pyongyang considers diplomatic defection a sign of fraying loyalty in its upper echelons and a backdoor for Seoul to find out the regime’s secret ways of raising foreign currency to bankroll its nuclear program and to smuggle luxury goods for the Kim family. UN sanctions ban them.

Ryu comes from an exceptional elite family, with his father-in-law, a high school alumnus of Kim Jong-un’s late father, having handled slush fund the Kim family maintains. The father-in-law was replaced by his longtime underling, according to the Unification Ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs.

“Ryu is a key figure among the political elite in Pyongyang,” said Rep. Tae Young-ho, a lawmaker with the opposition People Power Party. He was the North’s deputy ambassador to Britain before fleeing here with his wife and two sons in 2016.

“His desertion is evidence of eroding support for Kim at the highest level,” Tae said.

Seo Jae-pyoung, secretary general of the Association of the North Korean Defectors, said Ryu could have felt threatened returning to Pyongyang.

“It’s usually either family, who want out, or senior diplomats themselves feeling insecure, when they make the run. Ryu might have thought he was in danger. Diplomats face backlash back home if they fail to produce results Kim demands: making money,” Seo said.

Ranking North Korean diplomats including Ryu must have difficulties transferring enough cash to the regime grappling with UN sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and last year’s summer floods, Seo added, noting underachievers are not welcome back.

At the party congress early this month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un admitted his five-year economic plan had failed “terribly” to deliver on expectations for almost every sector. The rare public acknowledgement was seen as direct evidence of dire economic conditions.

By Choi Si-young (